A sorry lesson in bigotry and naivety

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Specialist teachers are the best way to deliver sex education in the curriculum, says Jaye Richards

The recent case of the 11-year-old girl getting pregnant after a drunken night out on the town is a reflection once again of the state of sex education in schools. Predictably, the media attach the blame not only to her mother, but also to her teachers. And this time, I am forced to conclude that they may have a point.

Just exactly what was she taught at her school about sex that left her with a disregard for her own body and emotional well-being? And why was the father-to -be, a youth of 15 we are told, behaving in such an irresponsible manner? Did they both know nothing about the dangers of unprotected sex?

The answers may lie in our national reluctance to address the teaching of this difficult subject matter through fear of causing controversy. Despite the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe and some of the worst infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases in the developed world, reactionary groups in Scotland, particularly the religious hierarchies, want to censor and control what little sex education there is in Scottish schools.

Many pupils are woefully ignorant of sex and the emotions that are intrinsically tied up with it (the young girl who was the subject of these latest reports actually believed that it was impossible to conceive during your first sexual experience). This is despite the guidance advising parents that their children will have had the chance to discuss issues such as sexuality and risks by the time they reach the middle years of secondary school.

While we rightly place great emphasis on anti-racist education, sex education and more particularly the emotional and consequential aspects of sexuality, are usually brushed under the carpet and relegated to the quiet months of the PSE course. Teachers are naturally reluctant to discuss these issues, especially those relating to sexuality, as many do not feel comfortable talking about such matters, particularly as most have not been trained to cover such sensitive material.

Much of this reluctance can be traced back to that fundamentally damaging and flawed excuse for legislation, Clause 2A. Even after it was scrapped, its legacy still remains. Teachers are afraid to discuss issues surrounding sexuality for fear that it will be inappropriate and against the law.

Every time something like this hits the newspapers, or there is some new proposal for addressing the piecemeal and inadequate sex education process, there are howls of protest from the so-called moral majority - or minority, as I prefer to describe them. This distracts attention from the real issues, those concerned with educating our young people to provide them with the tools to go out and take their place in the world; to be caring, responsible and productive members of society. Education about relationships and sexuality, about emotions and sexual health, is a vital part in this process.

Perhaps groups such as the Catholic Education Commission, so often highly critical of sex education in schools, should concentrate their efforts on the important business of teaching kids to take their place in a 21st century Scotland where the bigoted opinions of others stay firmly where they belong, in the past.

Glasgow City Council, for one, is taking ownership of some very important problems and trying to address them in a sensitive and informed way, with initiatives in conjunction with health and social care organisations.

The accusation last year that the council breached guidelines set out in the Ethical Standards in Public Life Act (2000), by sending out a questionnaire to S3 pupils about their perceptions on sex and relationships, was laughable. This type of survey should be a vital component of the work done in schools as an integral part of learning and teaching. How else are we to deal with the fears, concerns and problems of young people? Rather than the criticism and abuse they received, again from the reactionary media and the church groups, the council and NHS Greater Glasgow deserve our full and unqualified support on this matter. Maybe if this type of approach had been adopted by the school attended by the 11-year-old mother-to-be, she might still be enjoying the remainder of her childhood instead of struggling to care for her own child.

The time has come for some radical thinking. Remove the responsibility for teaching this sensitive area of the curriculum from schools and hand it to visiting specialists, properly trained in how to handle the subject.

Expensive? Initially, yes of course, but how much money will be saved in the long run? Money at present spent on a social security system which has to pick up the pieces of damaged and ruined lives caused by a lack of education. Surely this cost to our society is the most shameful aspect of the whole sorry affair.

Jaye Richards teaches at Cathkin High, Rutherglen

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